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35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Decline and Fall, January 6, 2007
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This review is from: The Oxford History of Britain (Paperback)
Few of us would deny that, among countless other things, Britain, that small and infinite island, has given us some of the world's greatest historians: Gibbon, Macaulay, Trevelyan... All of them writers who possessed impressive conviction, a masterful prose style, an all-embracive mind, a sharp wit, and an idiosyncratic genius. Certainly, Britain's history is not less fascinating that its historians: its course has greatly influenced (and, sometimes, dictated) the rest of the world's affairs. Like any other part of our past, it also offers a clue to understand our present - maybe even our very essence. Unfortunately, this just makes Oxford's failure to produce a decent one-volume History of Britain all the more frustrating.

Kenneth O. Morgan, the editor, asserts in his foreword that only a multi-author approach can cope with such an extensive subject, since relying purely on one writer would be "neither practicable nor desirable, now that Renaissance men have vanished from the earth." The fact that this book's most glaring deficiencies are due to the very method Morgan so heartily endorses, however, somewhat undermines his assertions. For while it may be true that a vast undertaking like the 15-volume Oxford's History of Britain, for example, would hardly be possible without the collaboration of a selected group of specialists, that same modus operandi is at odds with this book. The main strengths of a one-volume history should not be painstaking detail, but clearness, concision and consistency -something Morgan has sadly neglected. This kind of book should be enlightening and accessible to laymen and undergraduates alike; it is neither.

First of all, each chapter appears to have been written in isolation, as if each author had been blind to the work of the rest: there is frequent overlapping of information, constant change in approach, and, what is worse, scarcely any unifying interpretation of history. This disjointed, choppy method grows wearisome very fast. A single writer would have probably treated every chapter as a part of a whole, and would have therefore arranged and interpreted every event accordingly; there is no such frame or criteria here. The writers fall over themselves jumping back and forth in time to include tidbits of information, destroying the flow of the book, sparing the reader no figure, statistic, or date.

This hints at another huge defect: the astounding incapability throughout to sort the relevant information from the trivial or downright confusing. Crucial events are shrugged off in order to expand on some trifling detail; the big picture is always taken for granted or just forgotten. The Hundred Years' War, for example, is thrown into the background, as if it were pure circumstance, something that happened to affect England by some nebulous reason. When you have only a few hundred pages to explain how and why Britain's history unfolded like it did, cutting it off from the rest of the world does not like a good idea, but that solipsism prevails here. While, for example, six pages are spent explaining, with painstaking detail (various graphs included), England's population growth in the Tudor Age and how it affected market prices, no room is given to the fundamental causes behind both World Wars. They almost materialize into existence, in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it fashion.

If one were to take each chapter individually, these defects would not look so obtrusive; however, this book is definitely less than the sum of its parts. Morgan took quantity over quality, specialized knowledge over lucidity, ten authors (including himself) over a "Renaissance man." In my opinion, genius is not restricted to a bygone era; nor can it be replaced by a ensemble of academicians. Until a more ambitious historian takes up the delightful challenge of relating Britain's past in a approachable, perhaps even memorable way, we will have to go back to Hume, to Macaulay, to Travelyan. It may be that sometimes they were not afraid of subtly changing history to make it fit their viewpoint - but then again, Britain itself has never been afraid of making history either.
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